Opportunities abound this season for Michigan small-game hunters

A ruffed grouse hunter moves into the aspens behind his pointing dog.

Aug. 29, 2013

Small-game hunting season begins Sept. 1 with the opening of the early Canada goose season and continues until rabbit and hare season ends on March 31. Department of Natural Resources wildlife biologists across the state say hunters should find conditions similar to last year in Michigan's wood lots, farm fields and wetlands.

Rabbits

Season: Cottontail rabbits and varying (or snowshoe) hare can be hunted from Sept. 15 - March 31, statewide. The daily bag limit is five in combination with a possession limit of 10.

Outlook: Roughly 60,000 hunters reported pursuing rabbits in 2010 (the most recently completed harvest survey) and about 15,000 hunted hares. Cottontail populations are good throughout their range over much of the state. Concentrate on thick cover, such as briar patches and brush piles, often near agricultural fields. Snowshoe hare populations are down somewhat from historic levels. Look for early-successional forests (such as aspen stands) and low-lying swamps with blow-downs and brush piles in the northern two-thirds of the state.

A rabbit hunter shows off his prize -- and his beagle.Squirrels

Season: Sept. 15 - March 1. The daily bag limit is five per day with 10 in possession.

Outlook: Both fox and gray squirrels are at moderate to high levels across much of the state. Last year's mast crop was poor, so squirrels gravitated to areas adjoining agriculture. This year's mast crop appears to be abundant, so squirrels should be widespread in areas with beech, oak and hickory trees. About 70,000 hunters pursue squirrels each year.

Ruffed Grouse

Season: Sept. 15 - Nov. 14 and Dec. 1 - Jan. 1, statewide. The bag limit is five per day/10 in possession in the northern two-thirds of the state, three per day/six in possession in Zone 3 (southern Michigan).

Outlook: Grouse populations are cyclical, typically rising and falling over a 10-year period, and indications are that we are coming off a peak and into decline. The spring drumming survey showed a statewide decline of 13 percent from last year with the highest counts in the Upper Peninsula. Michigan boasts about 85,000 grouse hunters. Grouse typically inhabit early successional forests -- young to moderate-aged aspen stands (five to 15 years old). Food sources are important, but berry and wild fruit production is abundant this year. Grouse are most numerous in the Upper Peninsula and northern Lower Peninsula, but hunters may find local populations in areas with good habitat in southern Michigan, too. Grouse and woodcock hunters are asked to assist the DNR in monitoring populations by reporting their results. Cooperator forms can be found on the DNR website at www.michigan.gov/hunting -- select Upland Game Birds and then Ruffed Grouse.

Woodcock

Season: Sept. 21 - Nov. 4, statewide. The daily bag is three with a possession limit of six.

Outlook: Although woodcock populations are in long-term decline because of decreasing habitat quality, hunters can expect about the same results they enjoyed last year, when roughly 35,000 hunters -- often in conjunction with grouse hunting -- said they pursued woodcock. Found in all parts of Michigan, woodcock are migratory, and although their population densities are higher in the northern two-thirds of the state, they often can be found in good numbers in southern Michigan later in the season as the birds head south. The best habitat is young cover along streams and on swamp edges; the long-beaked birds feed by probing the earth for worms and other invertebrates in moist soils. Peak migration occurs in mid-October in the northern portions of the state. Hunters are reminded that they must have a Harvest Information Program (HIP) endorsement printed on their small game licenses to legally take woodcock. See the 2013 Michigan Hunting and Trapping Digest for details.

Rabbit hunters with their dogs in the winter.Sharp-tailed Grouse

Season: Oct. 10-31 in the eastern Upper Peninsula, east of M-129 and east of I-75 north of M-48. The limit is two daily, with four in possession; six per season.

Outlook: This is the fourth season of hunting after nearly a decade of closed seasons. Sharptails are birds of grasslands and associated shrubby habitat (think pheasant habitat). Often found in small flocks and sometimes difficult to approach; sharptails can require relatively long-range shooting compared to ruffed grouse. Sharptail hunters are required to have a (free) sharp-tailed grouse endorsement on their hunting licenses. Last year, 3,200 hunters acquired the endorsement, but only 394 reported hunting, killing 156 birds.

Pheasants

Season: Oct. 10-31 in the Upper Peninsula in Menominee County and portions of Iron, Marquette, Dickinson and Delta counties, Oct. 20 - Nov. 14 in the Lower Peninsula and Dec. 1 - Jan. 1 in selected areas of Zone 3. The limit is two cocks daily, with four in possession.

Outlook: Pheasant populations have been in decline for a number of years, primarily because of changes in agricultural practices and/or urban sprawl, though this summer rural mail carrier brood index was the best since 2004. Typically, the best habitat is on private lands that have been managed for pheasants, especially those that are enrolled in farm set-aside programs, though more public land is being intensely managed for pheasants as part of the Pheasant Restoration Initiative. Hunters who enjoyed success last year should find similar hunting conditions in the same areas. The best counties for pheasant hunting occur in south-central to mid-Michigan and into the Thumb, though locally abundant populations can be found almost anywhere. Look for warm-season grasses, especially idled farm fields. Late-season hunters can have success in cattail and shrub lands adjoining picked agricultural fields. An estimated 27,000 hunters pursue pheasants in Michigan.

Quail

Season: Oct. 20 - Nov. 14. Quail can be hunted only in Branch, Calhoun, Clinton, Eaton, Genesee, Gratiot, Hillsdale, Huron, Ingham, Ionia, Jackson, Kent, Lapeer, Lenawee, Livingston, Macomb, Monroe, Montcalm, Oakland, Saginaw, St. Clair, St. Joseph, Sanilac, Shiawassee, Tuscola, Washtenaw and Wayne counties. The bag limit is five per day/10 in possession.

Outlook: Quail hunting often is associated with pheasant hunting in Michigan, and bird populations are patchy at best, though spring nesting conditions were ideal. Fewer than 1,000 hunters report hunting quail.

Wild Turkey

Season: Sept. 15 - Nov. 14 in 11 management units including the entire Upper Peninsula (except Isle Royale) and all counties to the south of and including Oceana, Newaygo, Mecosta, Isabella, Midland, Bay and Huron (except Wayne and Monroe); and Emmet, Cheboygan, Charlevoix, Antrim and Otsego. Beaver Island is included in two management units. More than 50,000 licenses are available -- 5,150 general licenses that may be used on public or private land and 46,700 licenses for private land only. Licenses are issued by lottery, though leftover licenses are available over the counter on a first-come, first-served basis until management unit quotas are met. The limit is one bird of either sex per license.

Outlook: Fall turkey seasons are only held in areas where populations are stable to increasing, so prospects are very good. Roughly 16,000 hunters pursue wild turkeys in the fall hunt, many of them during the archery deer season.

A couple of youngsters are all smiles while enjoying a successful day in the duck blind.Ducks

Seasons: Sept. 21 - Nov. 10 and Nov. 23 - Dec. 1 in the North Zone (Upper Peninsula); Oct. 5 - Dec. 1 and Dec. 14-15 in the Middle Zone; and Oct. 12 - Dec. 8 and Dec. 28-29 1 in the South Zone.

The bag limit for ducks is six per day with no more than four mallards (no more than one hen), three wood ducks, three scaup (bluebills), two redheads, two pintails, two canvasbacks and one black duck. Five additional mergansers (no more than two may be hooded mergansers) may be taken. Possession limit is two days' daily bag limit.

Outlook: Prospects for Michigan's 40,000 duck hunters are excellent. Continental populations are down 6 percent from last year, but remain 33 percent above the long-term average. Locally, spring surveys indicated a decrease in the Great Lakes mallard population, despite an increase of wetlands of 32 percent from last year. Opportunities for puddle ducks -- especially wood ducks -- in beaver ponds and small inland floodings should be good as it's been a rainy year. Diving ducks, which usually begin arriving in good numbers around mid-October, should be plentiful on the Great Lakes, but bluebill numbers are down 20 percent -- leading to a reduction of one in the daily bag limit. The daily bag for canvasback, however, has been raised by one. The possession limit has been increased from two days' daily bag to three days' bag.

Canada Geese

Seasons: The early season is Sept 1-15 except in the Upper Peninsula and Saginaw, Huron and Tuscola counties, where the season is Sept. 1-10. The daily bag limit is five.

The regular goose seasons are Sept. 11 - Dec. 11 in the North Zone; Sept. 21-29 and Oct. 5 - Dec. 26 in the Middle Zone; and Sept. 21-23, Oct. 12 - Dec. 8, and Dec. 28-29 in the South Zone, except in designated goose management units (GMUs). The daily bag limit is two. In the Saginaw County GMU, the season is Sept. 21-23, Oct. 12 - Dec. 8 and Dec. 28 - Jan. 27 with a daily bag limit of two. In the Tuscola/Huron GMU, the season is Sept. 21-27, Oct. 12 - Dec. 8, and Dec. 28 - Jan. 23 with a daily bag limit of two. In the Allegan County GMU, the season is Nov. 2 - Jan. 31 with a daily bag limit of two. In the Muskegon Wastewater GMU, the season is Oct. 16 - Nov. 13 and Dec. 1-22 with a daily bag limit of two.

The late goose season, in the South Zone excluding the GMUs, is Jan. 18 - Feb. 15 with a daily bag limit of five.

Hunters may take 20 snow, blue or Ross geese daily during the regular goose seasons in all zones and GMUs.

Outlook: Resident Canada goose populations, which account for more than 70 percent of the state's total harvest, are above population goals, so hunters should find plenty of geese, with as much opportunity as ever.

For more information on Michigan hunting seasons, licensing and other information, visit www.michigan.gov/hunting. If you're looking for a place to hunt, check out Mi-HUNT (www.michigan.gov/mihunt), an interactive map application where you can find good public-land hunting opportunities, and the Hunting Access Program (or HAP, at www.michigan.gov/hap), for private lands throughout southern Michigan that are open for public hunting.